Lawsuit says new Thomas Jefferson HS admissions policy discriminates against Asian-Americans

A lawsuit against Fairfax County Public Schools alleges that changes in the admissions process at an elite northern Virginia high school were made to purposely reduce the number of Asian-American students accepted.

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The Pacific Legal Foundation filed the lawsuit Wednesday over the admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. The plaintiff in the case, Coalition for TJ, is a group of Fairfax County residents, many of whom are Asian-American parents whose children are students or plan to be students at Thomas Jefferson.

The lawsuit alleges that a recent overhaul of the admissions process at the school eliminated race-neutral standardized admissions tests. Coalition for TJ says that these changes were made specifically to reduce the percentage of Asian-American students who enroll. The ultimate goal, the lawsuit alleges, was to racially balance the school according to the demographics of Fairfax County.

According to the lawsuit, the school's 2024 student body is 73 percent Asian-American, nearly 18 percent white, just over three percent Hispanic or Latino and only one percent Black.

The lawsuit goes on to say that at a school work session last September, Thomas Jefferson's principal, Dr. Ann Bonitatibus, said that FCPS was making "efforts to ensure that we are more demographically representative of the region."

The suit also alleges that a board member described Thomas Jefferson's majority-Asian-American culture as "toxic" for Black students. Court documents also say that board members' repeated references to "TJ's toxic culture" refers to the racist "Tiger Mom" stereotype of Asian-American parents pushing their children to achieve academic success, as well as racist stereotypes of Asian-Americans being anti-Black.

Fairfax County Public Schools shared the following statement with FOX 5: 

"Today, a new lawsuit was filed against the Fairfax County School Board and FCPS superintendent in the federal district court in Alexandria. The lawsuit alleges race discrimination against Asian American students by the School Board and superintendent in changing the TJ admissions process, in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

Fairfax County Public Schools and the Fairfax County School Board remain committed to ensuring that all FCPS students have access and opportunities to reach their fullest potential. It is in that vein that the Board fervently supported removing the historical barriers and inequities faced by students from culturally and ethnically diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, while still ensuring that TJ maintains its high academic standards.

Background on  FCPS School board actions on this issue:

• In October 2020, the School Board voted to eliminate the standardized admission test for TJ and the $100 application fee. They also voted to expand the freshman class to 550. 

• The new admissions criteria, which will be used to select the class of 2025, is based on a holistic review and is aimed at improving the school’s diversity and access. The changes to the current process include the following:

       • Increase the capacity of each admitting class from 480 to 550.

       • Elimination of the Quant-Q, ACT Aspire Reading and Science tests.

        • Elimination of the application fee.

        • Elimination of the teacher recommendations.

• The top 1.5% of eighth-grade students at each public middle school who meet the minimum evaluation criteria (GPA, student portrait sheet, problem-solving essay, and experience factors: including students who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners, or special education students) will be offered admission. Additionally, the remaining unfilled seats are available to all applicants to receive an offer of admissions based on the strongest evaluated applications. 

• The process continues to be race neutral and merit-based.

• All student applications will go through the holistic review process.

As a Governor’s school, we value diversity and believe that it contributes to the richness of the education at TJHSST."

The Associated Press says Thomas Jefferson HS is frequently ranked among the best in the country and that similar debates have occurred at other elite public schools in New York City and San Francisco.